The Mazda CX-30 Is A Good Car With An Annoying User Interface That Convinced Me That All Infotainment Screens Should Be Touchscreens

Dealbreaker Top

I was planning on doing a micro-review of the Mazda CX-30, but as I was testing the car and gathering my thoughts about it, I found myself confronted with something frustrating, over and over, to the point where I realized that I need to write a different sort of article about this car, because it’s not that common to find a generally good car hamstrung by one trait, especially something that can be so easily solved. The problem is Mazda’s choice to have a center-stack infotainment screen that is not touch, and can only be controlled via a knob and some buttons. I think this choice is precisely the sort of dealbreaker for many buyers that would push them to a similar car, like a Honda HR-V or a Nissan Kicks or maybe a bit bigger to a Toyota RAV4. And I think that’s a shame.

Cx 30

I don’t want Mazda to see this as an attack; it’s more like an intervention you’d have for a friend who’s generally great, but is making some sort of bad life decision that is clearly causing them trouble. And I do think this has to be causing Mazda at least some trouble.

It’s not like nobody is buying the CX-30, but it’s not like it’s doing that great, either. For the first half of 2022, it was ranked eighth among small SUVs/crossovers in sales:

Sales1

I can’t help but think that the CX-30, which is pretty competitive in most other ways, would have done a lot better if only it had a UX that didn’t make people want to put their fist through the dashboard all the time.

Theknob

Here’s how the Mazda UX system works: you have a wide screen atop the dash, and you can touch that screen all you want, point to icons or symbols or commands, but all you’re going to get for your poking efforts are fingerprints on the screen. Because this is not a touch screen. Instead, you have a large knob between the front seats, surrounded by a few buttons, and it’s via this that all interactions with that screen must happen.

Tempest

It’s like some UX designer at Mazda was playing a lot of Tempest and thought, hey, why can’t I control everything in my car the same way as I shoot squiggles with my yellow spiky thing here? Now, a good number of years ago, before touchscreens became commonplace, this sort of interface wasn’t that uncommon. Today, though, it is, and I think it’s pretty clear why.

It’s awkward. It’s awkward in the Mazda-designed UX that was specifically designed to work with this setup, and it’s even more awkward when using something like Android Auto or Apple CarPlay – interfaces whose designs are based on phone interfaces that were really only meant to be manipulated via a touchscreen.

Carplay1

When using CarPlay, the UX is forced to add a glowing frame around whatever icon or control currently has focus, and in place of a tap, you can press down on the knob to act as a button. In some contexts, the knob can be tilted joystick-style to move the cursor, but mostly you’re spinning the knob to move focus from icon to icon.

Highlight

It, charitably, sucks. And this isn’t shocking; the CarPlay interface was never meant to be controlled via a knob, at any point in its development. This is very much a touch-based interface.

Ruining the way a driver interacts with CarPlay (and Android Auto) is a big deal, because there’s a huge number of drivers out there who are only interested in interacting with their car’s infotainment via such systems. For many people, the manufacturer’s UX just doesn’t matter, because they’d rather listen to music or navigate via the UX they already know, the one on their phones.

As a bit of anecdotal evidence, a good friend of mine is a Honda Fit owner, and I recently had to help her perform some arcane system reset on her car so her CarPlay would work again. And let me tell you, it not working on her car was a big deal. Her enjoyment of her car – which she is very fond of – is heavily dependent on CarPlay working. When it started to work again her face lit up with unashamed relief and joy. I’m certain she is not alone.

Dogs

When I was using CarPlay on the CX-30, I found myself instinctively poking fecklessly at the screen over and over again, and then, dejected, having to spin that knob around until I was able to do whatever the hell it was I was trying to do, a process that invariably took far longer than the quick poke I had attempted.

The system is so bafflingly awkward I had to reach out to Mazda to get a sense of what the logic was behind this choice. Here’s what they told me:

Mazda’s philosophy is to minimize driving distractions. We’ve done studies that have shown navigating the infotainment by feel through the commander knob helps minimize driving distractions and keeping the driver’s eyes focused on the road.”

Now, conceptually, sure, this all makes sense. Don’t be distracted! Screens are not great for most car functions, really, and I very much prefer physical controls. But that plural is crucial: controls. One physical control that acts as a mechanism to navigate options on a screen is not the same as, say, having tactile knobs for volume or HVAC controls or whatever. This doesn’t solve the problem of keeping your eyes on the road, because despite Mazda suggesting “navigating by feel,” I don’t see how you could do that for almost anything I tried to do. You still have to look at the damn screen to know what you’re selecting.

This is especially true with CarPlay; you can’t navigate just by feel when there’s nothing to feel? I’m not saying touchscreens are perfect by any means, but, glancing at a screen and poking at the thing you want I found to be far, far quicker and requires less hand-eye coordination that spinning a knob until the icon you want has a blue frame on it.

Side

Other people may feel differently, so I have a dissenting opinion for you here: our own Thomas Hundal said he actually likes using this setup, so I let him make a case in favor of the knob:

To people who’ve never used Mazda’s latest infotainment system before, it may seem like an unnecessarily obtuse way of using phone mirroring features like Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. After all, Apple CarPlay was designed with touchscreen use in mind, why funnel everything through a scroll wheel? Well, there is a fairly good reason, and it has to do with how people actually use Apple CarPlay.

If you use the rotary knob to punch an address into a navigation app, you’ll have to do it Asteroids-style and scroll letter-by-letter. However, as Apple CarPlay is powered by your phone, it’s just faster to tell Siri where you want to go than it is to punch in characters on a digital QWERTY keyboard, especially given the delay between punching in characters and Waze or Google Maps bringing up results. After all, Siri is leagues better than any native automotive voice command system, so why not use the best tools available?

Once on the move, controlling CarPlay via knob really comes into its own. Recently-used apps are all docked on the left, so scrolling through grids is a fallacy. If you ever feel compelled to do something like hop into your calendar on a whim while driving across town, please just take a bus. Plus, a knob is the best way to use Waze. There’s a bit of a learning curve, but muscle memory is quickly built to flag hazards without even taking your eyes off the road.

What’s more, Mazda has perfected how to switch audio tracks on the go with its jog-capable volume knob. Tilt the knob right to skip forward and left to skip back, it’s so intuitive that every automaker should use it.

Being able to use common functions without taking your eyes off the road is a safety feature and one that’s increasingly important as cars become more software-defined. A magazine test out of Sweden has some good data on how screens are more distracting than knobs and buttons, and not being distracted can be the difference between a hard braking event and a very expensive phone call to your insurance company’s claims hotline. While most manufacturers have focused on turning cars into smartphones, Mazda’s focused on making smartphone tech safe to use in cars, and almost every other automaker could learn something from this tiny Hiroshima-based company.

Okay, Thomas, okay, take it easy. First, we’re seeing some of the same it’s-just-a-knob fallacy here, because that Swedish study was talking about dedicated function knobs and buttons, not what Mazda’s system really is, which has a knob as an interface for a screen. I mean, look at what the study tested:

The team at Vi Bilägare chose a litany of fairly simple tests for drivers to perform. The first was an obvious winter morning routine of turning on the heated seat, bumping up HVAC temperature by two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), and activating the rear defroster. The second was as common as can be, to power on the radio and set the channel to Sweden’s P1 talk channel.

Those are functions that have dedicated physical controls; I’m complaining about using a knob to navigate UXs that require some degree of screen attention.

Maybe, as Thomas says, with a learning curve, you can get pretty good at navigating such a system. I’m sure you can.

[Editor’s Note: My brother Phillip (also known as Shep) owns a new Mazda CX-5 with the same interface. He likes it. In fact, here’s his full take:

Ah, the topic of control dial versus touchscreen, one so divisive it has created a rift in my relationship with my wife, who jokingly quips of how primitive my car is without touch capacity. I, however, am a purist for analog, and get arm cramps just thinking of the effort it takes to control such highfalutin tech! Slight lean, arm lift, stretch toward the pixels, and precisely tap a tiny target, leaving smudgy impression behind. I’m exaggerating, of course, but I genuinely don’t wish my car had a touchscreen because, after a few week’s learning curve, I can navigate Mazda Connect (and more importantly, Android Auto) just as easily.

I think most of you will agree: touching a knob feels so good (a statement that, I recognize, might raise some eyebrows for the UK readers). To be clear, Mazda’s UI can be cumbersome, touchscreen or not. There seem to be a million ways to tune the radio, none less confusing and frustrating to navigate through than a Tomb Raider puzzle.

Fortunately, I use Android Auto (Apple CarPlay for you i-users), which is where the updated, dial-only infotainment in my 2021 model shines. The 10.25-inch panel does split-screen better than macOS, allowing me to effortless switch between Maps and Music with a swift push and click–a gesture so intuitive that it doesn’t require me adjusting my gaze from the road. Navigation is done through voice (Google Assistant, in my case) and song selection is only a few taps away.

Only one thing makes me yearn for a touchscreen: pinch to zoom. Rare, yes, but there are occasions when I want to navigate across Google Maps to see what’s around me or if there is an alternate route. With the dial, I can zoom in and out, but only from a fixed point with my CX-5 in the center. Pushing the knob left or right doesn’t shift the map around. On a touchscreen, you can navigate freely, moving your view in any which direction and zooming more precisely. For that reason alone, I wish both touchscreen and dial inputs were offered on the CX-5, which, if Mazda is being honest with itself, it should have done to begin with.

-DT].

But you can also get really good at efficiently poking things on a touch screen, and that’s the UX you’re already using all day as it is. And, worse for Mazda, when people are cross-shopping cars, they don’t have the luxury of the learning curve, so for potential buyers for whom CarPlay or Android Auto is important, it only takes one frustrating test drive to push them into the seat of a Honda HR-V.

RearindAgain, I say these things as a friend, Mazda. This isn’t a hill worth dying on. The CX-30 is engaging to drive, looks good, has decent cargo room, and is otherwise a fine small crossover choice. I very well might pick it over a Nissan Kicks or a Hyundai Kona or a VW Taos. But not if I get pissed off every time I stab the Maps icon with my finger and jack shit happens, or a call comes in and poking the big green answer button doesn’t do anything, and then I have to find that knob and watch that screen and then they’ve hung up and now she’s pissed at me and that’s a whole other can of worms, so thanks for that, Mazda.

I’m not alone in my disparagement of the knob. Over at The Old Site, they came to a similar conclusion, and even the stalwart and sober Consumer Reports corroborates my bitching. From Y Combinator, which quotes Consumer Reports’ review (which is behind a paywall):

The infotainment screen mounted in the center of the dash isn’t a touch screen; users must adjust audio and infotainment features using steering wheel controls or the rotary controller and buttons mounted between the front seats. Unfortunately, some steering wheel controls are hard to see and difficult to use because they have silver text on a silver background. The rotary knob and buttons in the center console are also challenging to use since many of the buttons are difficult to see at a glance, and the lack of an easy-to-decipher menu structure forces drivers to spend too long looking at the controls instead of the road.

Besides, if Mazda really loves their knob, there’s zero reason they can’t keep it and have a touch screen! Lots of other cars do just that. People used to it can get whatever benefits they think it offers, and everyone else who isn’t Thomas and some Mazda UX designers can do it the normal people way, by poking things with their fingers.

Are these non-touch screens that much cheaper? Pretty much everything else on the market has a touch screen, so unless Mazda promised to empty a bunch of old inventory out of an LCD warehouse, I can’t think of any reason why having some touch functionality would hurt them.

In fact, I’m just going to come out and turn this into my hot take: if you’re going to have a big screen on your dash for controls, just go ahead and make it a touchscreen. It’s become such an ubiquitous way to interact with screens today that it’s pointless (no pun intended, but damn) to fight it. If people’s trained instinct is to touch an image or word of what they want to happen, what’s to be gained by not allowing that?

If you have a better idea with your knobs or trackballs or squeeze-bulbs then great, implement it, see how it does, but only in parallel with the touchscreen setup that everyone expects. Because, let’s just face it, touching things just works.

The point is Mazda could likely eliminate a potential source of buyer rejection very easily, if it’s willing to swallow some pride and have touch screens in their cars.

 

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112 Responses

  1. I bought my first touch screen car this past winter. 2019 outback.with in a month I was annoyed with the touch screen.
    Never hitting the touch screen in the right spot the first time, always having to really look at the screen to know what I was doing if I need something.
    Add to that the screen was a dingy dull screen that couldn’t be read with sunglasses.

    Horrible
    With in three month I realizeD I was complaining about the car after every drive.

    Luckily I had test drove a cx-5 while car shopping that ended in the outback. I had already figured out how to use the dial comfortably during the test drive.

    Yup broke down and sold the outback, having lost money, but bought a cx-5 about two weeks ago. Couldn’t be happier to be in a car with a sane user interface scheme for use while driving a car.

  2. You really think putting a sales by volume list in your “research” comparing the CX30 to the Ford EcoSport really helps your argument that the CX30 needs needs a touch screen infotainment system? Did you just graduate high school and get your first drivers license? Do everyone a favor and stop publishing articles as a car enthusiasts much less an expert on the subject matter of automotive design. The only arguable compromise on the CX30 is possibly the overuse of poly cladding to weatherproof the body for inclimate weather and even the cladding is 100% reasonable and rationale knowing the market consumer the product is targeting. Dude please take some classes in journalistic research before you start posting loosely gathered forensics that show how really misinformed you are about strategic automotive design and why someone companies choose to lead by their own standard an as such are often times successful for it. It was because of poorly substantiated automotive research like the content in your article why I chose to test drove the Mitsubishi Outlander Sport and having test drove everything in it’s class, i can tell you that it is probably the most underrated competent car and best overall vehicle in its class even eclipsing the CX30 and the Crosstrek with it’s on demand 4WD system. Leave the CX30 alone buddy. Mazda knows what it’s doing, you don’t, lol ????

  3. I’d say I’m almost ashamed to admit that I read this piece of nonsense, but by the end I was laughing out loud. Are you so tethered to your tech that it would be the dispositive factor for your decision whether to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a vehicle that you’ll hardly ever use for more than an hour or two a day, and maybe some days not at all? Can’t get to the supermarket and back without your touchscreen? I have a solution: the car radio. To each their own.

    1. I got a CX-9 and I’d choose non-touch over touchscreen all day long. As for going to the store without a screen, I could do it…but not without my 12 speaker Bose system. One last sometimes overlooked feature on some Mazdas I’ll note: “Butt Coolers” as my son calls them. Gotta have those ventilated seats.

  4. The author is exactly spot on. I’ve owned a half dozen Mazdas including all 3 last gen Mazda 6. I love my Mazda but the lack of enabling the touchscreen just makes me love it a little bit less. It’s incomprehensible to me how anyone can think that using a knob to interact with the screen is actually safer. In Android Auto I find my eyes are not focused on the road a concerning amount of time just so I can do basic things in Waze or Maps or Google Podcasts. I wish I could just push the screen instead of trying to figure out where my “cursor” is or is going next.

    The irony is that when the car is at a standstill, it occasionally let’s me use the screen as a touchscreen.. although I have rarely been able to get it to work, although the manual says it should enable touchscreen functionality whenever the car is stopped. So at least in the 2018 Mazda 6 Signature the screen IS a touchscreen.. but Mazda decided what’s best for owners by disabling it as soon as the car is out into drive. Ridiculous!

  5. Not being able to use the touch screen while driving is one of the better design decisions Mazda has made. Especially with carplay/Android auto you just issue a voice command to do most actions. This lets you focus on driving and not on digging through multiple menus to turn on your seat warmers.

    They even have dedicated nav and music buttons around the dial of my 2016 CX5 to make it easy to jump between. It will be a major change going to another system when the time comes since Mazda is determined to make more expensive comfortable vehicles and not cheaper fun to drive vehicles.

  6. After 2 days you:re use too it. I actually prefer the knob. Half the time with touch screens you never press the right thing. Anyone who uses their car touch screen when you can use voice is a baby boomer or older. Haha I love Mazadas UX. Don’t think I’d like to go back to a touchscreen. I think having the screen where it’s at. Using voice mostly… Or the knob when absolutely necessary adds to the whole very high end feel to the car. Also… I think people who right opinion pieces should keep their opinions to themselves. Opinion piece writers have inflated egos. Everyone likes different things. Just my opinion. Haha

    1. You must have perfect Midwest newscaster accent, but for many of the rest of us, voice recognition doesn’t work that well. Both in misunderstood words and not understanding cadence. For instance, when I say a phone number, I leave a slight pause between the area code and the prefix, and again between the prefix and the line number. Invariably, it wants to start dialing a 3 digit number after my first pause. Shouldn’t it be able to recognize that I’m saying a phone number (since I just said ‘Call’ or ‘Dial’ and wait for either 7 or 10 numbers to be spoken before it starts dialing.

  7. I find this so interesting. I had the opposite experience.

    I test drove the Mazda3 of which the cx30 is based and I found the rotary knob to be precise and so easy that I could use it with muscle memory and keep my eyes on the road. I actually fell in love with it and ordered a new Mazda. I’ve been living with it for 8 months and it works flawlessly, there was a learning curve but I really appreciate not having another dirty grubby touch screen plastered close in my face.

    I sincerely hope that Mazda keeps the touchscreens away or at least leaves the rotary control interface as is, it is superb. Panasonic could make some improvements to their UI sure but I can’t use a darn touchscreen while I’m driving, nonsense.

    1. 1. Love the comment name.
      2. It’s interesting how polarizing this is! Some people do, indeed, seem to love it. My friend cannot stand it when he had one. David’s brother likes it. I’ve had this before and it bugged the crap out of me. I guess we’ll see if they stick with it.

  8. This, is quite possibly the most entitled, whiny, ridiculous article I have ever had the pleasure of wasting time reading.

    I’ll be sure to let Google know to pull this website from its suggested articles on my phone.

    This is, quite possibly, the best reason to remove some author’s internet access so he can never inflict this whiny, temper tantrum, entitled ranting on anyone else again.

  9. My brother recently picked up a CX50. I far prefer the knob thingy over a traditional touch screen. Though, yes, real “normal” buttons would be the best. Yes, the knob has a learning curve to it (I have maybe 20 minutes of seat time in his new car) but it’s so nice to have a physical landmark to return your hand to and have pretty intuitive control of.

    1. I have a 2018 Mazda 6 with the older version of this system. Still has Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, and it only takes a few minutes to get over the learning curve. Sure, the Mazda UX sucks no matter what, but using the smartphone mirroring isn’t a problem. There’s even physical shortcut buttons to switch between music and navigation.

  10. I’d been shopping for a new crossover/SUV sized vehicle. Looked at the offerings from Subaru, Toyota, Honda, Mazda and Nissan. Been undecided, but leaned towards the Rouge Sport due to it looks.
    Mazda seemed a bit pricey but much nicer.
    Then I read this review about the knob, and especially the comments supporting their information system. I revisited the CX-5, played with the system. Loved it, now my new Red CX-5 is sitting out front. Much better user interface than my wife’s Outback, or the Honda I traded in.

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